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The Sonic Oxymoron of Smooth Criminal


HideOuter Junior
This is what I've accidentally found on allmusic.com / published on 26.04.2022

I'm not sure if the information about the "musical mode" is correct, 'cause on another source "Michael Jackson: All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track that the song" key is "C" major instead of "A" minor. To my ear they can be modulated in a very similar way.

I know C major (c-d-e-f-g-a-b) and A minor (a-b-c-d-e-f-g) has the same notes, but I couldn't lay the notes on top with what he comes up with numeration also.

Cause On the b-section where he sings repeatedly "Annie are you okay?" the notes are "F" and "E" major, if its A minor its "VI" and "V"

(A=I / B=II / C=III / D=IV/ E=V/ F=VI / G=VII )

I don't know, If I should mail him or something, maybe I got it all wrong, what he was trying to say about those notes:D, what do you think ?

But the rest of the analysis, besides the notation wise is very intense, I exactly know what he wanted to point out, the topic stands for the whole article.

The Sonic Oxymoron of Smooth Criminal​

The Sonic Oxymoron of Smooth Criminal

By Lucy Mao · Apr. 26, 2022​

Released in 1988 as Bad's seventh single, "Smooth Criminal" by Michael Jackson was the album's sixth top 10 track. It reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and was recognized as 2x platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. While the single never topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it has retrospectively been extolled as one of the best songs from Bad and Jackson's music career. "Smooth Criminal" describes an attack on a woman named Annie by, well, a "smooth criminal," but it moonwalks much farther beyond a slick felon. The single is a sonic oxymoron of life and death that leaves listeners teetering on the bridge between the prospect of living and the threat of dying.

"Smooth Criminal" begins with a shrill punch of instrumentation and jagged breaths as a sinister melody flickers in the background, creating an ominous mood and anticipating the onset of violence. Then, Jackson's grating "Ow!" pierces the atmosphere and indicates that the smooth criminal has begun his crime against Annie. The lyrics paint a grisly scene of Annie being attacked in her apartment; Jackson pronounces, "There's a sound at the window / Then he struck you, a crescendo Annie / He came into your apartment / Left bloodstains on the carpet," describing a scene reminiscent of a blunt force murder. The brutality is amplified by "And then you ran into the bedroom / You were struck down / It was your doom, Annie." It seems as if Annie has met her demise via a cruel beating, with the A minor mode and foreboding melodic progression reinforcing this dark prospect. Listeners are consequently pushed towards the idea of death.

But is Annie really dead? After all, Jackson never explicitly states that she is dead. The refrain "Annie, are you okay" is repeated throughout the song, suggesting that the narrator does not know if Annie is dead or alive; he is unsure of her condition and thus needs to persistently ask for confirmation. Annie's unknown fate builds that tense bridge between living and dying that listeners are forced to teeter on. But despite the grim descriptions of her attack, the tempo is upbeat and the beat is fast and steady, resembling a heartbeat. In fact, right in the middle of the song is a verse that echoes a hope for life; Jackson declares, "Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / Sounding heartbeats, intimidation." This middle verse, which calls forth "resuscitation" and "heartbeats," runs parallel with the fact that the heart is located nearly in the center of the chest. This emphasis of the middle and its connection to the heart, a vital organ, implies that "Smooth Criminal" centers on and revolves around the process of resuscitation. Coupled with the heartbeat rhythm, these parallels suggest that the narrator is attempting to stimulate Annie's heart and revive her unconscious body, giving listeners hope that Annie will be okay. Jackson thus pulls listeners towards the prospect of life.

Not only does "Smooth Criminal" evoke ideas of resuscitation, it mirrors the process of CPR. In the first verses, Jackson uses past tense and describes Annie in the third person, enunciating, "So she ran into the bedroom / She was struck down, it was her doom." His role as an omniscient but uninvolved narrator does not last for long, however, as in the following refrain, he immediately starts to address Annie directly; he asks her, "Annie, are you okay? / So, Annie, are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?" Throughout the rest of the song, rather than describing Annie's attack through a distant, third person lens, Jackson becomes actively part of the situation, with lines like "Then you ran into the bedroom / You were struck down / It was your doom." The initial use of third person indicates that the narrator has just found out about the attack but is still removed from the situation; he is making his way over to Annie's unconscious body. Then, the start of his direct interaction with Annie implies that he is now actively working with her; he is performing CPR.

As the song progresses, Jackson's efforts to resuscitate Annie continue. His vocals sound out of breath and rushed, reflecting the tremendous physical effort and haste required in CPR. The rapid heartbeat rhythm, which consistently permeates the music, reinforces this exertion and hurriedness. And the fast tempo of 117 BPM mimics the rate of chest compressions required in CPR: 100 to 120 compressions a minute. The heaving and pushing during chest compressions are also reflected in the rising and falling chord progressions. The intro and verses feature a chord progression that steadily goes i - ii - III - ii, and the pre-chorus/refrain of "Annie, are you okay" moves firmly between scale degree VI and scale degree VII. These plodding progressions also indicate the rise and fall of Annie's chest from the chest compressions and perhaps her breathing, indicating that she is closer to regaining consciousness. These elements suggest that the narrator is embroiled in his resuscitation efforts, closely juxtaposing the prospect of living with the looming threat of death. Listeners are holding onto the hope that Annie will be revived but cannot escape the reality that the CPR could be unsuccessful, apprehensively staggering on the bridge between life and death.

But as "Smooth Criminal" rushes towards the end, it seems that listeners' fear for Annie will be realized. The chord progression of the chorus alternates between i - VII - VI - VII and i - VII - VI - V (major), dwelling on the dominant chords of VII and V and thus heightening the anguish. In the chorus' final two repeats, Jackson repeatedly bemoans "I don't know" and "dag gone it" at the ends of his lines, and these trailing phrases invoke the narrator's frustration with the resuscitation efforts and suggest that the CPR isn't working. Furthermore, Jackson cries "help me," reiterating how he is struggling to revive Annie. At this point, Annie's death seems inevitable, and listeners are again lured towards the misery of death.

Jackson concludes "Smooth Criminal" with "It was your doom Annie," suggesting with finality that Annie has met her demise and dealing the fatal blow to listeners' hope for her life. Annie's life is apparently over, ending with the close of the lyrics, and listeners must now mournfully accept that the narrator's resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. However, only the lyrics end there. Despite Jackson's pronouncement of Annie's doom, the instrumentation keeps going for approximately 30 seconds after the last line. The heartbeat rhythm rushes past the final "It was your doom Annie" and continues to evoke the feverishness of lifesaving CPR. This instrumental persistence suggests that despite the lyrical hopelessness of the situation, the narrator hasn't given up and is vigorously persisting in his resuscitation efforts, again calling into question Annie's fate. Consequently, Jackson gifts listeners with a renewed hope for Annie's life, but they still don't have a clear answer. "Smooth Criminal" never explicitly reveals the outcome of the resuscitation efforts, leaving listeners teetering on a seesaw between the possibility of life and the threat of death.

While "Smooth Criminal"'s bloody lyrics lure listeners towards the thought of death, the rhythmic heartbeat pulls them back to the prospect of life, creating a sonic oxymoron of life and death. The CPR-invoking melody, vocals, and instrumentation evoke hope for Annie's revival but simultaneously present the risk of failure, causing great apprehension. During CPR, the victim's fate is uncertain; they could either become responsive or never regain consciousness, rendering them temporarily stuck between living and dying. Thus, CPR represents a bridge between life and death. In "Smooth Criminal," as listeners are pulled back and forth between the hope for life and torment of death, the CPR-reminiscent elements ultimately leave them balancing precariously in the middle of the bridge, entangling them in a tense state of unknown, irresolution, and ambivalence.
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Vanesa Sisto

HideOuter Novel
Hello CanBadder! It was a very interesting read! Actually it makes a lot of sense since Michael took inspiration from Annie dolls used for practicing CPR.
Thank you for sharing!